The Ryanair Chase is always one of the most highly anticipated contests throughout the Cheltenham Festival. Jonathan Vine looks through the ante-post market and picks out a few strong candidates for the title.
Since its inaugural run in 2005, the Ryanair Chase has established itself as one of the premier races at the festival, with trainers and jockeys all dreaming about walking away from Prestbury Park with the coveted Festival Trophy. There may be a fairly sombre feeling throughout the throngs of onlookers in the build-up to the race, as they fondly remember last year’s champion Vautour, who sadly lost his life in a freak training ground accident earlier in the season.
The reigning champion’s tragic demise, combined with the dominance Douvan has displayed in the two mile chasing division, has forced Willie Mullins into pushing 2015 Arkle winner and Champion Chase runner-up, Un De Sceaux
) into the Ryanair picture. The reigning Tingle Creek and Clarence House champion is no stranger to two-and-a-half mile contests – boasting an unbeaten record in his three previous attempts at trips between 19 and 21.5 furlongs.The nine-year-old was pushed all the way to the line by Sire De Grugy on his way to Grade 1 success of the season at Sandown, but the way he finished that race - along with the staying power he displayed at many points during the last campaign – suggests a step up from two miles will suit him very well.
2015 Ryanair winner, Uxizandre
) made his long-awaited return from injury in the rescheduled Clarence House at Ascot. Alan King's nine-year-old showed understandable signs of ring rust and trailed the pack for the majority of the race. However, once he found a nice rhythm over his fences, he looked more and more like the champion of old and eventually crossed the line second, just five lengths behind Un De Sceaux. If he gets off to a better start at the Festival, many will fancy that five-length gap being much narrower, so it's was no surprise to see him jump to second in the betting after his Ascot comeback.Josses Hill
) returns to the Ryanair with a bit of a point to prove, having finished a distant eighth in last year’s renewal, but Nicky Henderson will be very encouraged by his charges recent displays in big Graded contests. He may have finished last in the King George VI Chase, but he came home just three lengths behind Cue Card in second and that three mile marathon was a little further than he would ideally like. The nine-year-old began his new season with a victory over the capable Camping Ground in a two-horse contest at Kempton, before easing to victory ahead of Tea For Two in the Grade 2 Peterborough Chase at Huntington.Bryan Cooper riding Empire Of Dirt to victory in the Festival Plate last season.Empire Of Dirt
) won a lucrative handicap at Leopardstown last January, before repeating that winning trick in last year's Cheltenham Festival. He went to post as an unfancied 16/1 shot in the Brown Advisory Plate, but Gordon Elliott's charge put in a classy performance to win that title by just over four lengths. The ten-year-old began what was supposed to be a build-up season towards the Grand National with an excellent win in a large field handicap at Navan, before finishing a narrow second to Sizing John in the Irish Gold Cup. He was one of many Gigginstown horses to have been withdrawn from the National at the latest stage, leaving the Ryanair as his main objective for the season.
Henry De Bromhead’s Sub Lieutenant
) has been turning heads over in Ireland after displaying plenty of excellent early season form. Two third placed finishes in Grade 1s bookend two impressive victories in high-profile contests, including a three length victory over future Lexus Chase winner, Outlander in a Grade 2 at Down Royal in November. It was a blow to lose out to Sizing John in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles, but he still ran well in second place and could have a big say in the matter at Cheltenham.
The betting in this year's small field contesting the Ryanair is already incredibly tight and the combatants could be even more bunched when the approach the post on Thursday afternoon. Empire Of Dirt has been the punter's horse over the past few weeks. He won over course-and-distance last season, but after spending the whole season running in three milers, the pace here could get a little too hot for him. Uxizandre has to be considered a threat after the terrific showing he put in at Ascot. As does Josses Hill, who is due a good result in a huge, festival Grade 1. However, despite the going likely to be on the better side of soft, UN DE SCEAUX is the one everyone has to beat.
Stepping up in trip from two miles will do him the world of good and his jumping has been very solid since that surprise fall at Leopardstown two Christmases ago. Obviously, a bit of extra give in the ground will be a boost to his chances and it looks like the nine-year-old will get his soft ground wish, as he looks to avenge his defeat at the hands of Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother last year and the Ryanair looks like an ideal opportunity for Un De Sceaux to claim a second Cheltenham Festival title.
16/3/2017 2:30pm Cheltenham selection – UN DE SCEAUX (2/1 Ladbrokes)